TRIBUTE TO A CIVIL RIGHTS PIONEER OF ROANOKE, VIRGINIA
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On May 25th, 1963, the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson gave his powerful "Second Class Citizen" speech at First Baptist Church to approximately 600 black and white protesters during a NAACP mass meeting. At the rally demonstrators and guest speakers addressed job discrimination and ending segregation towards African Americans in Roanoke, Virginia.
Rev. Dr. Raymond R. Wilkinson, known as the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson, fought for equal rights against racial injustice during segregation in Roanoke, Virginia. Born on June 18th, 1923, he was a native of Amelia County, Virginia. At age 18 during World War 2 he served in the U.S. Navy and survived the great Battle of Okinawa in 1945. After serving 4 years in the U.S. Navy, he attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. There he earned his Bachelor’s Degree and his Master of Divinity Degree in Theology in 1955. Years later, he would be awarded the Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree from Virginia Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In 1956 upon finishing his education, he moved to Rocky Mount, Virginia where he became pastor of First Baptist Church. That same year, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson also became an Associated Editor of Western Virginia's only African American owned newspaper the Roanoke Tribune. He wrote weekly articles to update African Americans on Civil Rights issues while also writing messages regarding faith and encouraging the people to get involved to stand up against inequality.
In 1958 he was called to Roanoke, Virginia where he pastored at Hill Street Baptist Church for thirty-three years. As President of the Roanoke NAACP Chapter during the Civil Rights Movement from 1959 to 1968 he became the instrument for change. In 1960 under his leadership, he would challenge segregation laws by leading a secret Biracial Committee to initiate integration in Roanoke, Virginia; strategically fighting to integrate white only Lunch counters, Department stores, Schools, Victory Stadium, Movie theaters, Roanoke Fire Department, and Roanoke Memorial Hospital. In 1963 he defended black neighborhoods as he tirelessly fought Roanoke City Council to close Washington Park Dump so it could be moved out of the African American community. He also fought against job discrimination in Roanoke's Department Stores, Public Schools, Police Department, Fire Department, and Sanitation Department keeping pressure on white store merchants to hire black citizens for employment and promotion. In 1968 he served as President of the Baptist Pastors Conference of Roanoke, Salem, and Vinton, Virginia and served as President of the Roanoke Valley Ministers Conference in 1978. In 1980 he battled Urban Renewal Development as they tore down black neighborhoods including his church. He kept pressure on the Mayor and City Council to rebuild his new church and keep it in the Gainsboro neighborhood where his original Hill Street Baptist church once stood.
He continuously put his life on the line during the struggle at a dangerous time in society when black leaders were being assassinated fighting for equal rights. Even when he was being threatened or had gun shots fired at his house, he never backed down and kept fighting the good fight. He passed away on June 15th, 1993. He will always be remembered as an outspoken warrior for equal rights who sparked desegregation in Roanoke, Virginia during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The Roanoke NAACP Branch honored him by naming their annual citizen of the year award "The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson Memorial Award for Social Justice." Rev. Dr. R.R. Wilkinson's legacy as a trailblazer of Civil Rights in Roanoke lives on today.